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|Cultural origins||Late 1970s, New York City|
No wave was a transient avant-garde music and art scene of the late 1970s in downtown New York City. Reacting against punk rock's recycling of rock and roll clichés, no wave musicians instead experimented with noise, dissonance and atonality in addition to non-rock genres like free jazz and disco while often reflecting an abrasive, confrontational, and nihilistic worldview.
The term "no wave" was a pun based on the rejection of commercial new wave music. There are different theories about how the term was coined. Some suggest Lydia Lunch coined the term in an interview with Roy Trakin in New York Rocker. Others suggest it was coined by Chris Nelson (of Mofungo and The Scene Is Now) in New York Rocker. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth claimed to see the term spray-painted on CBGB Second Avenue Theater before seeing it in the press. The movement was short-lived but influenced independent film, fashion and visual art.
No wave is not a clearly definable musical genre with consistent features, but it generally was characterized by a rejection of the recycling of traditional rock aesthetics, such as blues rock styles and Chuck Berry guitar riffs in punk and new wave music. Various groups drew on or explored such disparate styles as funk, jazz, blues, punk rock, and the avant garde. According to Village Voice writer Steve Anderson, the scene pursued an abrasive reductionism which "undermined the power and mystique of a rock vanguard by depriving it of a tradition to react against". Anderson claimed that the no wave scene represented "New York's last stylistically cohesive avant-rock movement".
There were, however, some elements common to most no-wave music, such as abrasive atonal sounds; repetitive, driving rhythms; and a tendency to emphasize musical texture over melody—typical of La Monte Young's early downtown music. In the early 1980s, Downtown Manhattan's no wave scene transitioned from its abrasive origins into a more dance-oriented sound, with compilations such as ZE Records's Mutant Disco (1981) highlighting a playful sensibility borne out of the city's clash of hip hop, disco and punk styles, as well as dub reggae and world music influences.
No wave music presented a negative and nihilistic world view that reflected the desolation of late 1970s downtown New York and how they viewed the larger society. In a 2020 essay, Lydia Lunch stated there were many problems in the years that led into the 1970s, and that calling 1967 the Summer of Love was a bald-faced lie. The term "no wave" was probably inspired by the French New Wave pioneer Claude Chabrol, with his remark "There are no waves, only the ocean".
In 1978, a punk subculture-influenced noise series was held at New York's Artists Space. No wave musicians such as the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, DNA, Theoretical Girls and Rhys Chatham began experimenting with noise, dissonance and atonality in addition to non-rock styles. The former four groups were included on the compilation No New York, often considered the quintessential testament to the scene. The no wave-affiliated label ZE Records was founded in 1978, and would also produce acclaimed and influential compilations in subsequent years.
By the early 1980s, artists such as Liquid Liquid, the B-52s, Cristina, Arthur Russell, James White and the Blacks and Lizzy Mercier Descloux developed a dance-oriented style described by Lucy Sante as "anything at all + disco bottom". Other no-wave groups such as Swans, Suicide, Glenn Branca, the Lounge Lizards, Bush Tetras and Sonic Youth instead continued exploring the forays into noise music abrasive territory. For example, Noise Fest was an influential festival of no wave noise music performances curated by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth at the New York City art space White Columns in June 1981. Sonic Youth made their first live appearances at this show. It inspired Speed Trials, the noise rock five-night concert series held May 4–8 in 1983 that was organized by Live Skull members in May 1983, also at White Columns (then located at 91 Horatio Street). Among an art installation created by David Wojnarowicz and Joseph Nechvatal, Speed Trials included performances by The Fall, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, Mofungo, Ilona Granet, pre-rap Beastie Boys, 3 Teens Kill 4, Elliott Sharp as Carbon, Swans, the Ordinaires, and Arto Lindsay as Toy Killers. On May 10th, the San Francisco noise-punk band Flipper closed the series out with a live concert at Studio 54. This event also included performances by Zev and Eric Bogosian and a video presentation by Tony Oursler. Speed Trials was followed by the short-lived after-hours audio art Speed Club that was established by Nechvatal and Bradley Eros at ABC No Rio that summer.
No wave cinema was an underground film scene in Tribeca and the East Village. Filmmakers included Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Charlie Ahearn, Vincent Gallo, James Nares, Jim Jarmusch, Vivienne Dick, Scott B and Beth B and Seth Tillett, and led to the Cinema of Transgression and work by Nick Zedd and Richard Kern.
Visual artists played a large role in the no wave scene, as visual artists often were playing in bands, or making videos and films, while making visual art for exhibition. An early influence on this aspect of the scene was Alan Vega (aka Alan Suicide) whose electronic junk sculpture predated his role in the music group Suicide, which he formed with fellow musician Martin Rev in 1970. They released Suicide, their first album, in 1977.
Irish artist and film maker Vivienne Dick made a number of Super 8 films with Lydia Lunch in the mid-1970s in New York.
An important exhibition of no wave visual art was Colab's organization of The Times Square Show. In June 1980, more than 100 artists installed their works in an empty massage parlor near Times Square that included punk visual artists, graffiti artists, feminist artists, political artists, Xerox artists and performance artists.
No wave art found an ongoing home on the Lower East Side with the establishment of ABC No Rio Gallery in 1980, and a no wave punk aesthetic was a dominant strand in the art galleries of the East Village (from 1982 to 1986).
In a foreword to the book No Wave, Weasel Walter wrote of the movement's ongoing influence:
I began to express myself musically in a way that felt true to myself, constantly pushing the limits of idiom or genre and always screaming "Fuck You!" loudly in the process. It's how I felt then and I still feel it now. The ideals behind the (anti-) movement known as No Wave were found in many other archetypes before and just as many afterwards, but for a few years around the late 1970s, the concentration of those ideals reached a cohesive, white-hot focus.
In 2004, Scott Crary made the documentary Kill Your Idols, including such no wave bands as Suicide, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA and Glenn Branca as well as bands influenced by no wave, including Sonic Youth, Swans, Foetus and others.
In 2007–2008, three books on the scene were published: Soul Jazz's New York Noise, Marc Masters' No Wave, and Thurston Moore and Byron Coley's No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976–1980.
Coleen Fitzgibbon and Alan W. Moore created a short film in 1978 (finished in 2009) of a New York City no wave concert to benefit Colab titled X Magazine Benefit, documenting performances by DNA, James Chance and the Contortions, and Boris Policeband. Shot in black and white and edited on video, the film captured the gritty look and sound of the music scene during that era. In 2013, it was exhibited at Salon 94, an art gallery in New York City.
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